The days of controversy long behind them, Liquid finished the Spring Split a few mistakes away from a spot in the NA LCS Finals: looking nothing like the team that struggled to fit in their AD Carry. Now, in Summer, there are no more excuses. Liquid has the talent and the experience to make it to Worlds, and it's time to make it happen. For Christian “IWDominate” Rivera, this is his chance to bring home the biggest win of his long career. Always one of the better junglers in North America, Dominate and the rest of Liquid are now set to bring their game to the next level. I chatted with Dom after their win over TDK at the NA LCS, and he told me about what went wrong versus the Dragon Knights, the team's journey to this point, this new season of LCS, and how he sees the current jungle.
Congratulations on your win. How does it feel to get this first one under your belt?
It feels good, but we played way under the level that's acceptable for us. We had a bunch of blunders. We were confused as to which side, because apparently something online had us as the wrong side. We thought we were blue side, so we planned our whole strategy for that. This has never happened before, and we just had to go red side. We thought they would have an advantage on us because of that, because we couldn't do our ban/pick and had to come up with it on the spot. In the game, we didn't play super well. We made a lot of mistakes, and didn't close out as quickly as we should have. I don't think it was a super good game for us.
Was there any overconfidence in there, up against a TDK roster with three subs?
We played it just like any other game. We just underperformed. I don't know what it was, if we were just trying to go too hard in the early game, or if we disrespected them or something, but I know we planned for it and practiced for it the same way, so it was kind of disappointing that we weren't able to play better. Because in playoffs, we were playing at a way higher level than we displayed today. Maybe it was because it was our first game back so we weren't completely comfortable on stage again.
Continuing with that game, they had no bans. And while that does prevent them from target-banning you guys, it also leaves a lot more OPs on the table. How do you approach a game like that?
Well you're not gonna ban out any of the OPs, because you don't get a super big advantage off that. So what we did was ban some of the champions that they might play, and from there we picked strong matchups – or even matchups we thought we could win. So I played Gragas into Rek'sai. I personally have prioritized Gragas a little higher, but other regions prioritize Rek'sai, so I think they were happy with that. We had Cassio vs Azir which is a pure skill matchup. Whoever's better will win out that lane. I think we ended up playing an even game, and didn't get a big advantage out of it. I think that's partly because our prep was for blue side, so we did have a strategy that was gonna exploit that really hard, but we couldn't use that so it was just an even game.
Can I ask what you guys had prepped for blue side?
I guess I can say it since it's already happened. We were just gonna ban out junglers and pick one of the junglers I prioritize, whether it'd be Gragas or Rek'sai we were gonna decide. I was gonna get jungle priority and they would get no counter-pick. That's what we had planned, but obviously we didn't go through with that so we just got an even jungle match up.
Stepping back, you guys got third place and broke the curse, and you all took a decent break after the split and many of you guys went to Hawaii. How did you spend that time?
I took a small vacation with my girlfriend for four days to Vegas, and the rest of the time I just spent practicing. I was pretty comfortable just playing jungle again and I felt like I played noramlly in the game. I'd say that we didn't take too big a break – we were practicing for the last three weeks. Some teams took longer than that so I think we got all the practice we needed. We just didn't play well.
Liquid's one of the few teams coming into summer without any roster or management changes at all. Were there any changes behind the scenes to the way practice is structured or anything, or are you guys confident that the system you had last split is what's gonna get you to Worlds?
We didn't change too much, but we have a lot more analysis. Before, our staff was pretty much just Peter and Mark. We had other staff that helped them, but they didn't do anything specifically for the team. They'd just kinda look at our trends and see if there was any information our coaches could use. Now we have an analyst in house, and we also have Mark and Peter doing more of the coaching stuff. I think we should have more prep this split.
Towards the end of last split you guys were really trending up – playing well in Playoffs, and one game away from making the finals. Since the end of the split, what remaining gaps in play, execution, strategy did you identify and work to fix in subsequent practice to get over that last hump?
I think for us, we were playing a lot more intelligently. I think that's something we're still trying to do: have a lot less deaths in the early game and a lot less mistakes in general. Play cleaner with the advantages we have. We weren't able to do it today. I'd say today was probably worse than any of the playoff games we played, but hopefully it'll start showing through. We stop dropping games to lower tier teams and play solid.
Would you say all the internal roster turmoil is completely resolved at this point?
Yeah. I'd say the roster is getting along really well. We have no problems with anyone's play style or anything, and we're a lot more comfortable as a team. We're always joking around, which is kind of how a team environment should be. I remember, on Dignitas – which is the most successful team I've been on in terms of results – we had a similar environment to what we have now. Everyone believes in everyone else. We all think we're going to win going into the games. I have confidence that my mid laner is gonna be better than their mid laner in every game, that my bot laners are gonna be better, that my top laner's better. And they have confidence that I'll outjungle the enemy every single game. Even if that doesn't happen, that confidence helps us because when we go into games, we don't have to worry about “What happens if I mess up, what happens if somebody dies?” We view it as just a small aberration and we'll end up correcting it and they'll still be a presence in the game in team fights.
While you guys haven't really changed at all, a lot of the other NA LCS teams have changed and there's some new squads. Is there anyone in particular that you're looking at as a threat to you this split?
I think TSM will be our biggest threat. TSM actually lost today to Cloud9 which I was pretty surprised about, but I think TSM will get their stuff together and I think that TSM, CLG, C9, and TiP will still remain as the strongest and the hardest teams to beat.
Where do you place yourself among those guys?
I think we'll be able to place top 2 for sure, just based off scrim results. That's how we've been scrimming and that's how we've looked. We just have to translate it to stage. Especially come playoffs: we've always been a playoff based team. We play better in playoffs than in the regular season. I expect us to be able to get to the finals this time, and be able to fight for first.
Since the spring split, we've had a bunch of patches and the meta continues to change, but for jungle we still see the Sejuani and the Gragas as the two big priority picks. For you, what do you see as the current jungle meta, and do you think it'll continue to trend?
I think it depends on what changes go into the game. I think if they don't make any patches and Cinderhulk stays in the same state then you're going to keep seeing the same meta. Generally speaking, I think we'll be seeing a bit more Eve play to counter the Nunu, the Sejuani, the slow-based champions. Maybe something else will come out that hasn't been found. But in my mind, Sejuani, Rek'sai, Gragas will stay at the top until we see more changes: either to buff some of the other junglers, or to just nerf down Cinderhulk a little bit.
Just to ask you about the Eve a little bit: when Clearlove picked that at MSI, it really surprised a lot of people. What makes that pick such a strong response to picks like Nunu?
Well the main thing is that, against champions like Nunu, it has the ability to cleanse slows, so you nullify the only form of CC. Against Sejuani, she has a knockup and and ult, but if the ult doesn't land properly you have a cleanse for that. You also have early game pressure. That's the thing that's good against Eve – it always brings pressure on the map. If you're invisible, you could be in any lane at any time, so people have to play differently versus Eve. I think it's really strong in that aspect, and she's also really strong in teamfights because of the ultimate, which has been kinda something that stayed strong about her the whole time. Another reason is that she'd been receiving a lot of buffs. When the season came she got a bunch of armor so she could actually jungle, and then they buffed her W where now it goes down a second every time you use your Q or your E on someone, so it brings it up a lot quicker than before. And then on top of that, the E now applies on-hits, so you'll apply your red buff and do a lot more damage. All these small changes have been happening, and with Cinderhulk being nerfed slowly and her getting buffed, she's finally reached the level where she's actually playable.
I know some junglers like Xmithie still stand by the old Warrior enchant junglers, like Lee Sin, and you see Jarvan once in a while. Are those champs for you personally still too feast-or-famine to be good in the Cinderhulk meta?
They can work depending on the bans. If Rek'sai and Gragas are banned then Lee Sin can be played. But I still think that other junglers have more control and scale better throughout the game. Lee Sin's a champion where I don't value his teamfighting super highly, especially vs champions that have a lot of knockback that make it hard to play the champion. I think it isn't as strong as other picks and I don't prioritize it as high as Xmithie.
To close out the meta discussion, are you happy with the current jungle meta and picks are? Or are there any junglers that you wish you were able to play?
I'd say the jungle meta's becoming a little stale again. Rek'sai, Gragas, Sejuani, Nunu is all I've played for the last two or three months now, and Eve coming up now too. I just kinda wish that there was more versatility. I wish that champions like Pantheon had a little more viability – that it wasn't such a niche pick. Elise, for example, was a champion that was really strong in the past but nerfed. I wish Kha'zix was playable in high level competitive games. There's a lot of junglers that are played in solo queue that just aren't good in competiive anymore. I just wish there were more options, and that everything didn't feel so overshadowed by Gragas and Rek'sai.
Is that a direct result of Cinderhulk being too strong, or is it that the stats on those champions just don't match up?
I think it's a combination of things. The one thing Riot seems to do very frequently is that when they're trying to buff or nerf a champion, they buff and nerf at the same time. They'll nerf the Warrior enchant and the Warrior junglers at the same time as they buff Cinderhulk, so there's always a clear disparity. If there was a little bit more evenness in the way that they balanced champions I feel like you'd see more versatility and you wouldn't just see these drastic meta shifts where Sejuani and Gragas become the omni-OPs and you just want to play them over all the Warrior enchant junglers all the time.
Finally, do you have any shoutouts, anything you want to say to your fans, any last messages?
Definitely shoutouts to all the fans, and shoutouts to all of our sponsors: HyperX, Quest, Razer, Team Liquid, G2A, HTC, Namecheap, and Alienware.